Amerykahn Promise: Jazz and Hip-hop’s Brave New Fusion

No two things have shaped my world more than Hip-hop and Jazz. Hip-hop spoke to where I came from, what I’d been through, and the lack of opportunity I faced as a first generation Mexican-American woman who grew up in a city where pregnant high school dropouts were the norm. At a moment where I felt alone, Tupac was there.

Jazz represented where I wanted to go. It spoke of resilience, transcendence and the future. Long before I knew anything about its history, Jazz was the truest expression of community I had heard. Where Alice Coltrane took lead, Charlie Haden and Pharoah Sanders were present to accompany her on the Journey, and vice versa. While Alice could certainly stand on her own, Jazz isn’t and has never been about standing on your own. Yes, traditionally Jazz albums carry their bandleader’s namesake, but the music itself is about the players—the conversation that takes shape when each is present. When one is removed or added, the dynamic shifts. There’s constant movement. Sometimes you orbit back around to a previous movement, but you never return to it quite the same. There’s progression.

The Mothers of Jazz

When I think of Jazz, I think of Billie Holiday asking Colombia for a break in her contract, so that she could record “Strange Fruit” with Commodore Records in 1939. I think of her at the whites only club, performing the song in darkness, with a single spotlight pointed at her. I see Nina completely infuriated as she pounds the piano violently playing “Mississippi God Damn” in response to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls.  The girls, all under 14, were part of the church choir getting ready for a sermon entitled “A Love That Forgives.” I think of the Summer of ’65 in Los Angeles and the Watts Riots. I think of Alice beckoning us to find spiritual center amidst circumstance and inner/outer turmoil. While I can talk at length about giants like Miles Davis, Mingus, Monk, and the impact they’ve had on me, it’s the women of Jazz who have shaped my consciousness more than I could ever properly assert.

When I think of Jazz, I also think of Hip-hop/Rap and the earliest hints of their fusion in works like ATCQ’s Low End Theory, The Root’s Do You Want More?!!??!, and Guru’s Jazzmatazz series. Most critics and scholars have narrowed its origins to the late 80’s and early 90’s, with Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, marking the genre’s resurgence and renaissance. TPAB rightfully deserves praise, especially for the space it gave Terrace Martin, and everything that came with him, to flourish. This new movement of Jazz, much like the ones before it, sticks to its communal roots. Here you can see Martin and Kamasi Washington, both saxaphonist, occupy the same space without the storied cuthroat industry competitiveness. Each has something to contribute to the conversation. They hold each other up because they understand the circumstance that led to this moment. When one succeeds, they all do. Artists like Martin, Washington, Bilal, Robert Glasper, Solange, Ronald Bruner, Esperanza Spaulding, Josef Leimberg and others are doing for Jazz what Wynton and Branford Marsalis couldn’t do in the late 80’s. They’ve embraced the political edge of hip-hop, inserted themselves into the conversation, and as a result have given birth to Jazz’s Next Step. The step our current political climate demands. On any given day in Los Angeles, you can find the next wave of Jazz musician’s building momentum at places like The Blue Whale in Little Tokyo and Fight Club in Long Beach. There you’ll find the community who carries the torch. If you were paying attention, you could have seen TPAB coming from a mile away. Especially if you lived in Los Angeles, where members of the Young Jazz Giants were playing clubs around town and perfecting their chops on the road backing some of Hip-hop’s pioneers. Much has already been written in the last few years about this crucial step of Jazz’s progression and I only anticipate much more will be documented.

But, what’s often overlooked, is the period between the late 90’s and 00’s where people like Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Sa-Ra and Common were setting up TPAB to be the monumental moment it was. That’s what I’m interested in. What happened in that decade that gave us To Pimp A Butterfly.

Enter New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) 

When New Amerykah Part One dropped, I knew it was something different.  Although songs like “The Healer” and “Soldier” are pretty beat forward, the album as a whole fused funk and soul with notes of Jazz in a way I hadn’t heard before. It also, for the first time, brought together many of the producers and players who’ve become synonymous with the contemporary Jazz Hip-Hop movement. People like Madlib, Bilal, Thundercat, Questlove, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Roy Hargrove, Roy Ayers, Karriem Riggins, and Sa-Ra’s Om’Mas Keith, Taz Arnold and Shafiq Husayn. The subject matter is important, too. The album’s lyrics tackle everything from the industrial prison complex, gentrification, police brutality to education inequality. Badu saw the 4th war coming—an ideological war to protect our respective cultures and the right to exist as we are. In the “The Healer,” Badu declares “Hip-Hop is bigger than the government.” It’s a timely message that echoes the power of community.  It’s this shared community that has made the fusion of Jazz and hip-hop a contemporary force to be reckoned with.

Now, to say TPAB wouldn’t exist without Erykah Badu would be a stretch, but what I know for sure, is that it might sound a lot different otherwise. But…we all know how long it takes for a woman’s place in history to be rightfully acknowledged.

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Time and a Word

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Time is an intangible distance. When someone you love dies, all that separates you from them is time. Unlike the miles, state lines, or oceans that once divided you while they were alive, time has no retrograde. You can never physically return to a place in time. Even with the strongest of memory, details dissipate. Was his shirt blue? Was he wearing his glasses? Was that freckle on his right or left cheek?

I don’t remember.

All that remains intact are two fragments of time. I open up the door as I walk into the house, he’s sitting at his favorite spot on the creme colored couch with a newspaper by his side. But I don’t see him anymore, even in this memory all that’s left of him is a shadowy figure. I still hear his voice though and I know he’s smiling as he gets up to greet me “Ashee Mawee.” I’m 8, maybe 9 years old. I hug him tight as he asks if I want to watch cartoons. I joyfully decline and say he can watch the game while I do my homework. I’m distracted as I can’t keep my eye off the game. The game ends. There’s something on the news about Selena being shot. My eyes get watery andhe tells me it’s going to be okay as he dances with me to “Bidi bidi bom bom.”

I’m 19 as we sit on the green bench in grandma’s garden as he counsels me on matters of the heart. It’s the last meaningful conversation I can recall having with him. It’s the last thing I remember about him. Despite the fact that he only lived a mile away from me, I didn’t visit much in his final year. I didn’t want to remember him in the shape he was in. So thin and pale hooked up to oxygen–at times unrecognizable. I knew he was dying and my first instinct was to run away because I refused to watch him die.

Only now can I see how truly selfish my actions were. I wasn’t there when he needed me most. To make him laugh like I did when I was a kid, or to read him the paper as he had done for me when I couldn’t. To tell him it was all going to be okay and hug him as he had done for me.